My trip to the Rewa district, Madhya Pradesh, is the closest I have ever come to celebrity status. On Monday, my stoic translator and I hopped off an overnight train in Rewa district to continue our work for CGNet Swara, an organization that recently started a mobile-phone based news forum. My mission is to study the forum’s usage in the rural village of Dabhaura, which also happens to be the site of the first discovery of the white tiger.
My formal work in Dabhaura is to conduct interviews with the town’s residents. But when that work ends for the day, the debatably more exhausting task of seeing visitors begins. While people in the larger city of Bhopal were more shy toward me, the residents of Dabhaura and the surrounding villages gawk, follow, crowd and question. From what I know, I am the first foreign visitor to the area, and the first foreign face for some.
The second evening of my visit, I discovered an entrance to the roof of my temporary home and decided to bring some reading up there. What I did not anticipate was being easily visible to passersby on the street below, as well as people in their homes and on their own roofs. Within 10 minutes, a trio of boys I met the day before had joined me on the roof.
Throughout the rest of the evening, groups ranging from two to 12 people rotated through the roof, as visitors spread the word about the blonde-haired American living at the nearby NGO. Some attempted questions in English, while others giggled and spoke in Hindi. Others just stared with an uncensored intensity like nothing I have ever experienced.
On the third night, I spoke to my translator and requested that the visitors be turned away. I cited my need for focus as the reason for rejecting these visitors, but was also honest about the awkwardness of it. Instead, my translator suggested holding visiting hours each evening, as he predicted the onslaught would not let up while I was there. Now, I brace myself for these visiting hours, and the intense scrutiny and analysis they will bring, and I think I know how that first white tiger must have felt—cornered, exotic and exposed.